CANADA

Stirring linguistic passions

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 23 1984
CANADA

Stirring linguistic passions

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 23 1984

Stirring linguistic passions

The thud of wreckers’ hammers in the background seemed ominously appropriate to at least some of the parents, politicians and educators who gathered in the Quebec national assembly last week. While workers carried on with their renovations of the building, a commission launched hearings into a controversial bill aimed at dismantling Quebec’s 117year-old educational system. Though most of the bill’s critics agreed that the system needs to be changed, Bill 40 still promised to raise all the same stirring passions as did Bill 101, which made French Quebec’s sole official language. And once again anglophone fears for the survival of their language were at the heart of the debate.

The complex provisions of Bill 40 would transform the face of the Quebec school system, which, with more than one million students, is second in size only to Ontario’s. Over the years the Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards have to some extent functioned as parallel Frenchand English-language educational systems.

To replace that archaic system, Bill 40 proposes to create a formal system of school boards along linguistic lines. At the same time, the bill would transfer many of the present boards’ responsibilities to school councils elected by parents. Those councils would then decide whether individual schools would have a Catholic, Protestant or “neutral” religious status.

Critics suspect that the promise of a bigger parental role is really a smoke

screen aimed at allowing the education department to take over some of the powers of school boards. Although Education Minister Camille Laurin says that parent-controlled school councils will decide curricula, prepare school budget estimates and determine how students are to be graded, they will have to follow rigorous education department guidelines in all those areas. Under the bill the province also will have increased powers to withhold funds from boards that ignore its rulings or fail to provide information that Quebec City may request.

Anglophones are particularly worried. They fear that the strength of English school boards—already eroded by declining enrolment and by the provisions of Bill 101 requiring them to operate in both French and English— will be further weakened. Any change in the existing system would be “unacceptable,” said Allan Butler, chairman of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. His board, along with other Protestant boards, plans to go to court in March to argue that their right to existence was guaranteed under the British North America Act.

But the government appeared to believe that the storm over Bill 40 will pass. Declared the PQ’s David Payne, an anglophone member of the national assembly: “It is just like when we had the Bill 101 hearings in 1977. Everybody screams when you change the order of things, bu'i in the end we always get our way.” in Quebec City.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH